Last month, President Donald Trump announced he was halting US funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) for “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of coronavirus,” jeopardizing the lives of many across the globe. But there are more reasons to keep the WHO defunded, principally that it is one of the great engines of abortion advocacy around the world. This violates its own mandate, violates the national sovereignty of targeted countries, and violates the US prohibition of such activity.
We start with the understanding that the United States gives more bilateral funding for development and humanitarian assistance than any other country. It is also the largest national donor to the WHO, contributing $200-$300 million annually beyond the assessed membership dues of approximately $110 million.
Between 2008 and 2016, the WHO and other UN agencies were emboldened, with support from the EU and the US, to promote abortion. They did this as part of a phantom right to “sexual and reproductive health,” something that UN member states have consistently rejected since 1994.
This abortion promotion happens at the WHO through the organization’s specialized Department of Reproductive Health Research, recently renamed as the Department of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research. WHO’s Special Program of Research, Development, and Research Training in Human Reproduction, which includes various other UN agencies, is also an engine of abortion advocacy.
More than that, however, the WHO is part of many multi-agency partnerships alongside prominent abortion proponents, including the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Ipas, and Population Action International. Together they work to decriminalize abortion in the developing world by challenging pro-life laws through strategic litigation and by demedicalizing abortion so it can be self-administered with abortion pills.
There is longstanding global consensus supporting improvement of maternal and child health, especially in resource-poor areas. But the departments within the WHO that address these issues have placed them under an umbrella of “reproductive health,” which also includes abortion. By exceeding its mandate by promoting abortion, which remains highly controversial, the WHO diverts much-needed resources away from vulnerable mothers and babies, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
In 2010, the UN Secretary-General announced a high-level global strategy to improve women’s and children’s health, with a target of 16 million lives saved. But in 2015, the strategy had only saved 2.4 million lives, prompting reviewers to wonder how the full technical capacity of WHO and partner agencies made such a mistake. Rather than investigating it, the agency simply moved on.
The Trump administration has worked to counter this abortion advocacy by international institutions funded by the US. But this effort has been undermined by his opponents in the State Department. Most recently, staff at the State Department circumvented the president’s moratorium on WHO funding by deciding to keep US tax dollars flowing to the Pan American Health Organization, a regional office of the WHO.
The president’s executive order reinstating the Mexico City Policy—which prohibited non-governmental organizations that provide or promote abortion from receiving US aid for family planning services—and his 2017 expansion of the policy beyond family planning funding to all global health assistance, was a course-correction away from funding the promotion of abortion around the world. These decisions helped delegitimize abortion as maternal health care and as a human right. Yet, practically speaking, their impact is being stymied. Contrary to what opponents and supporters believe, it is not a complete prohibition of US funds to groups that perform and promote abortion, as seen by our support of the WHO and other abortion-promoting UN agencies.
If the Trump administration is serious about ending US complicity in creating an international right to abortion, it will need to close the loopholes. It can start with expanding the Mexico City Policy to make it apply to multilateral organizations like the WHO. While this may not be applicable to membership dues, it can certainly be applied to voluntary funding directed to all UN agencies.
Second, the Trump administration should consistently apply the little-known Siljander Amendment, which prohibits the use of US funds “to lobby for or against abortion.” The administration invoked Siljander to defund a part of the Organization of American States last year. The WHO and other UN agencies are clearly in violation of the Siljander Amendment, and should be held to account.
The United States should require mandatory reporting for all voluntary funding to the WHO and other UN agencies, including implementing organizations. These reports should be a condition of obligating voluntary funds. Until then, the US should redirect precious dollars to bilateral funding to establish self-reliant health infrastructures for national priorities in countries most in need.
Defunding the WHO over coronavirus was an important first step, but there is much more to do.
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